Marrakech Express: a.k.a. Twizzlers and Everwood (7/18/2011)

To be honest, Marrakech was not what I expected. Although, I’m not quite sure what exactly I expected in the first place. I suppose I imagined the marketplace scene from Aladdin, with lush fruit stands and handmade beads. While there is a large marketplace, Djmaa el Fna, we mostly spent our time going from the Riad (hotel) to the airport to search for our missing luggage. That was only one of the handful of mishaps that we encountered going from France to Morocco.

First, we spent more than an hour in the Paris metro waiting for specific tickets to get to the airport. And upon arriving at the airport only an hour and a half before our flight, we struggled to find our terminal and get through security in time. We arrived at the gate just in time to find out that our flight had been delayed (we only had an hour layover in Casablanca before having to catch the flight to Marrakech).

Anxiety really started to set in, which is unusual for me anymore. My emotions were going crazy from being frantic about finding the terminal in time and then being worried about missing our flight to Marrakech when someone was waiting for us at the airport. I was also sad about leaving France, tired from not getting much sleep, and nervous about the adventure upon which I was about to embark. I bet you can imagine what happened next… tears. Of course, it’s me. Thankfully, lots of prayer, texting my mother, and a hug from Kim helped to make things better.

I kept checking the time while we were on the flight. And the whole time, I thought for sure we had missed the flight. So, when we finally arrived in Casablanca, we spoke with a woman at the transfer desk. Turns out that flight was delayed as well. I was quite relieved, overjoyed might be the word.

Later, when we got to Marrakech, we discovered that our bags were still in Casablanca. After hours of waiting at the airport with no sign of them, we left to at least get a good night’s sleep in the hotel. Thankfully the hotel was air-conditioned, had wifi and had a free breakfast, because we ended up staying an extra night due to baggage problems. And the guys who were sent to pick us up (Ahmed and Mohamed) knew their way around and helped us, which made things a little easier on me. (Ahmed and Mohamed are cousins. Ahmed is also the brother of Carolyn’s husband Mohamed. We are staying with Carolyn, who is from the U.K. I’ll tell you more about her later.)

I did get to experience a little of Marrakech outside of the airport. The city reminded me of my visit to South Asia, which prepared me for this trip. The streets were dusty and crowded with people, cars, and mules. Motorcycles whipped by you (I was literally almost run over four times). Trash cans and traffic lights virtually do not exist, so we saw litter and a few close calls with accidents.

I also spent about an hour at a cafe by the place of the bombing in April, known as Cafe Argana. The area is a huge tourist spot. I felt strange seeing the building up close because I had been reading the latest news about the bombing for months in my tutorial, and I saw so many pictures of the aftermath of the attack. That experience was eerie for me though I’m not really sure why.IMG_0543     The day’s setback in Marrakech turned out to be a huge blessing, considering I wasn’t feeling well. Besides going to the airport twice and eating dinner at a cafe called “Ground Zero” (which happened to be by the most famous mosque in the city and is pictured above), we were able to spend the entire day resting in bed. Did I mention the room was air-conditioned? That in itself was a blessing, especially in the 110 degree heat of the desert. Any other down time we had, we spent it watching Everwood and eating a pound-and-a-half bag Twizzlers.
Oh the tastes of home…

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“We’ll always have Paris.” (7/8/2011)

As I write this post, I am watching the sunset illuminate the golden fields of wheat on the way to southern France. The trees display the brightness and warmth of the summer sun. We travel for miles without seeing a single building or car, but only catch a glimpse of several signal towers in the distance. Every so often, we pass a cluster of older French homes surrounded by more fields of gold.  How beautiful creation is when away from the busyness of the city.

Just 20 minutes ago, we were sitting in the Gare de Lyon in Paris and resting our legs while streams of people scurried around us.  The middle of the train station is a lot like the center of Paris, where most of the tourist spots are located.

Both of us being in love with Paris, we made sure that we visited the major tourist attractions (*insert French accent): le Tour Eiffel, le Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, Notre Dame, le Louvre. But what was great about this trip is that we weren’t on a schedule, and that we have both already seen the attractions of Paris, so we could enjoy the little parts of Paris.

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I think it’s safe to consider ourselves experts on the métro system, and we managed to carry many a conversation in French (mainly Kim speaking and me listening, adding my two cents every so often). These conversations included a two-hour talk with a 60-year-old French artist at Montmartre, gathering a group of seven French firefighters, talking to two older gentlemen at a café while they smoked their cigarettes, reminiscing in a restaurant about America with a family from Los Angeles, and laughing with an old woman who was working on a “mot croissier” (crossword) while waiting for her clothes to dry in the laundry mat.

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And of course, we explored the backstreets of the city, which are actually quite beautiful. Tucked away from tourists hide romantic gardens with flowers that smell like rose soap and sweet cherry candy (not the kind that tastes like medicine). We discovered a skate park, siblings playing soccer, and children playing “tag” in a small maze of tall bushes.

But like any city, there are parts that aren’t so magical, like the battle of jet lag and crankiness, and dragging about 80 pounds of luggage each through the city. We’re definitely going to have strong shoulders, calves, and backs by the end of this trip, that is unless they give out on us before reaching that point. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Now, bring on the Avignon reunion with Nicole and Serge (my host family from last year), and Florian and Christelle (French friends)!

“Méfiez-vous des gitans!” (3/26/2010)

The past two days have been a complete whirlwind, and I am exhausted. The traveling went smoothly, with no bumps or glitches, thankfully. Lugging around 50 pounds of luggage was not fun, though. I’m really regretting bringing two suitcases, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. I’m already thinking about what I can ship home so I don’t have to haul all of my luggage back. Oh well, I have three months to worry about that.

Anyway, we got to the hotel at about 10:30 a.m., after taking the RER B and Métro, and then walking some more. However, we couldn’t check into the hotel until 3:00, so we left our luggage there and took care of the major stuff first, such as buying our SIM cards and TGV tickets, and getting money out of the ATM. And with 140 Euros down the drain, I was finally able to see Paris. Again.

We (Kim, Alexandra, Alex and I) ate lunch, three blocks away from our hotel, at a petit cafe, where we all got massive, 8-Euro omlettes. The cafe was extremely narrow and small, and there was one waitress and one cook for the packed cafe.

Later, as Kim was buying her SIM card, Alexandra and I bought little chocolate bunnies from a chocolate store down the street. (I bought it in case of an emergency.)

Later in the afternoon, after we checked into the hotel, we walked about 15 minutes, until we got to Notre Dame, where all the gitans (gypsies) — dressed in floor-length skirts, striped socks, and sandals — swarm the naive and unsuspecting American tourists. (We watched it happen, and I have pictures to prove it.) They stick out like sore thumbs.

First, the gitan watches for small groups of people taking pictures. She approaches and asks if they speak English. When the group replies, “Yes,” she goes in for the kill. She hands them a sheet of paper and keeps talking, trying to sell them something, not exactly sure what, but something that will rip them off. When they say no, she persists. They turn their backs toward her so she will go away, but still, she persists. Finally, after about a minute of badgering, she gives up and looks elsewhere. Thankfully, I didn’t see any tourists give in.

After “gitan-watching” for about an hour, we decided to nap, and it’s a good thing we did, because while we slept, there was a monstrous thunderstorm with gusty winds. I’m glad we weren’t in it.

Once the storm passed and the sun finally came out, we made the “wise” decision to walk to the Eiffel Tower. Little did we know that Paris maps are very misleading with distances. It took us over one hour and 30 minutes to get there. Nonetheless, we were able to enjoy a parisian sunset. By the time we arrived at the Eiffel Tower, the sun  was almost completely gone from the horizon, and the stars and moon appeared brightly in the sky. The darkness allows the glowing tower to dominate the Paris skyline. And if you wait long enough, you can see it sparkle! But only for a few minutes.

Thankfully, we rode the métro back because none of us had energy. The 1.6 Euros was worth every “Euro cent.”

We were back to the hotel by 9:30, and I was asleep by 11. I didn’t sleep well, however, which was not good. I woke up twice. The first time, I had been lucid dreaming, dreaming that I was awake in the room, which caused even greater exhaustion. The second time, I woke up around 2:30, which is when I had my silent breakdown. I cried for about an hour and a half because I was so exhausted, worn out and worried about catching the train. Who knew that jet-lag would actually wake you up in the middle of the night? I thought it would make me sleep better. Guess not.

Needless to say, the breakdown and lack of sleep caused an extreme lack of energy today, and it didn’t help that we walked/ran for 4 hours this morning/afternoon. We ate the hotel-provided breakfast, getting a later start than expected. We walked 1.5 hours to the Champs Élysées, and got there at about 10:30. After 15 minutes of taking pictures, we basically had to run back to the hotel, because we had to check out by 12:00. I honestly don’t know how I didn’t collapse on the way back. My legs were moving, but I couldn’t feel them move. I hadn’t eaten for four hours and I was drained in every way. (This is why I suggest taking the métro: it would’ve saved time and energy. But oh well.)

I also wanted to take the métro to the train station, but that didn’t happen either. Instead, we walked about 40 minutes, carrying all of our luggage, to the Gare de Lyon. I was not in a good mood by this point.

Once we finally found the platform where our train was, we found five others from our group and stuck together from there on out. The TGV ride was wonderful and smooth, and I slept the whole time. I woke up five minutes before our stop, causing a bit of panic on my end. (Keep in mind that you have to get all of your luggage and yourself off the train in about two minutes.) Despite the panic, I managed somehow. From the TGV, we took a shuttle to the Avignon walls, where we then walked to the Hotel St. Roch.

My mood suddenly shifted to relief and happiness, especially after I dropped all my stuff and showered. We all met for dinner, and were there for three hours. On the way to dinner, we were able to see the numerous boutiques (where I WILL be shopping).

I tried my first glass of wine at dinner. I took a tiny, tiny sip of both red and white wine, and I found them both detestable. I gagged both times. The taste reminds me of the acid-taste in your mouth after you vomit. I won’t be drinking any more. Ever.

Nonetheless, the entire three-course dinner, especially the chocolate dessert and cup of tea, made up for the awful wine aftertaste. I ordered the Brick Végétarienne for the main éntrée, which was a mix of vegetables cooked in Indian spices and baked in a phyllo-dough crust. And, the best part, dinner was free.

And on the way back, we split in groups. (I just wanted to get back to the hotel.) In the half an hour it took to walk back, the three of us — Sammy, Kim and I — got six cat-calls from French guys. We were highly amused, especially since one group of guys tried to talk to us in English.

Let’s just say that today ended a lot better than it started. And tomorrow should be even better. We’re taking a walking tour of the city and meeting our host families. It should be interesting.

Until next time, bonne nuit. Je suis fatiguée.